House upholds Bush ban on aid to abortion groups

Conservatives gain a symbolic victory

May 17, 2001|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - The House of Representatives voted yesterday to uphold President Bush's order prohibiting U.S. money from aiding overseas groups that provide abortion services, a symbolic victory for conservatives.

Abortion-rights forces have sought to overturn that order since early this year, when Bush made it his first official act as president. The House halted its effort to reverse the ban, which was attached to a routine bill authorizing the State Department's budget, voting 218-210 to keep it intact.

Bush's executive order prevents U.S. aid to groups overseas that perform abortions or counsel about abortions. It affects mostly international family planning groups that provide an array of services in developing countries.

The House vote was a test of the anti-abortion movement's influence after eight years of being blocked by President Bill Clinton, who repeatedly vetoed measures restricting abortion rights. Bush's election encouraged abortion opponents, and both sides considered this vote an important test of the president's commitment.

"I think it is very important," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas. "If this became a ... close vote, it would be very important for conservatives to see the White House weigh in."

Abortion-rights advocates could force the question anew in the Senate, where anti-abortion fervor is weaker than in the House. But Bush could threaten to veto the State Department bill if Congress sends it to him with terms reversing his abortion order.

Given the president's veto power, conservatives say, his order probably will remain intact.

"Bush has told us he will veto it," said Rep. Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican and anti-abortion leader. "And if he finds it attached to some other bill, he'll veto that, too."

President Ronald Reagan imposed the overseas abortion ban in 1984. Clinton reversed it in 1993. Bush reinstated it on his first day in office.

Supporters of the ban say overseas family-planning groups should not get U.S. tax dollars if they advocate abortion in countries that ban it, if they perform abortions or if they counsel women about them.

Opponents call this approach a "gag rule" that prevents the organizations from giving poor women information about their options.

"In America, this law would be unconstitutional," said Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, a New York Democrat. "It's unconscionable that we should impose it on the world's poorest women."

Smith said that although overseas organizations have been barred since 1973 from using U.S. aid dollars expressly to pay for abortion services, they could shift their resources to pay for them unless Bush's ban is in effect.

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